Winning “Like the Saints”

>> 2.09.2010

In 2008, the Miami Dolphins were in trouble.  They’d “cleaned house” in the offseason: added a new quarterback, broomed and replaced the coaching staff, sacked the entire front office, and even sold the team!  Yet, they’d lost their first two games, and their offense looked completely impotent.

The Dolphins needed an answer.  They couldn’t improve the personnel in the middle of the season, so they had maximize what they had: two great tailbacks, a WR corps long on speed but short on playmaking ability, and a QB with a quick trigger, but packing only a BB gun.

QB coach David Lee and OC Dan Henning came up with an answer: the “Wildcat”.  It's an offense with an unbalanced line, a jet motion on every play, plenty of deception, and a backfield where just about everyone is a threat to run or throw.  Lee ran it during his time as the OC at Arkansas, and the veteran Henning had seen plenty of the Wildcat's precursor, the single wing, when he played college ball in the Sixties.

The Wildcat would allow both tailbacks to be on the field at the same time, receiver Ted Ginn to touch the ball without actually having to catch it, and Chad Pennington to worry about leadership and decision-making instead of converting on third-and-long.

It was an immediate success, fueling a 38-13 win at New England that week, and ten more wins in one of the most remarkable turnarounds in recent memory.  Of course, many teams immediately tried to replicate that success . . . by installing the Wildcat.   

All summer long, every team was scouring the roster for a reserve runningback or wideout who’d played quarterback in high school.  Every beat reporter was floating rumors about who’d been spotted taking snaps behind center.  Every team’s fan base was rooting for their team to take a college option quarterback, who could bring this lightning in a bottle to their town.

Did every team have two outstanding, complementary tailbacks? No. Did every team have a tough, gutsy quarterback who was better at the intangibles than the tangibles?  No.  Yet, we’d get breathless reports that, say, Denver was trying out their own version of the Wildcat, with Knowshon Moreno taking direct snaps, and Kyle Orton split wide.

If I ever meet Josh McDaniels in person, I’m going to make him explain to me what in red Hell a defense is supposed to respect about Kyle Orton split out wide.  What’s he going to do, run a route?  Block for a sweep?  Run a reverse, and take the handoff?  Kyle Orton is completely useless on a football field, unless the ball in his hands. 

So, what do we take from this?  The way to replicate Miami’s success is not to install the Wildcat, or some other useless facsimile thereof.  The way to replicate Miami’s success is to have smart coaches who can think outside of the box, and maximize talent.

So, to every Lions fan, I tell you this:

The way to win a Super Bowl "like the Saints" is not to have Drew Brees, a committee of four almost-good running backs, a committee of four kind-of-good wide receivers, a terrible left tackle, a drunken tight end, a pass-first offense, or an offense-first team.  The way to win a Super Bowl “like the Saints” is to have talent, and smart coaches who can think outside of the box to maximize that talent.

Think about it. What did Drew Brees do so well at Purdue?  Pick defenses apart with short-range passes out of multi-WR sets.  As a conventional quarterback in San Diego, he was at best inconsistent and at worst a failure.   In New Orleans, Sean Payton asks him to do only what he’s excellent at; people think Brees is now “better” than Peyton Manning, which flatly isn’t true.

Sean Payton figured out that Reggie Bush is Kevin Faulk, not Marshall Faulk, and employs him in only in that role—to great success.  Payton figured out that Robert Meacham is a short-yardage monster, and employs him in that role—to great success.  Payton knew that with his fast-scoring, high-powered offense, he needed an aggressive, blitzing defense that could protect a lead.  He hired hyperaggressive DC Gregg Williams to install such a defense, even though he had to give up $250,000 of his own money to do so!

So, if Jim Schwartz wants to replicate Sean Payton’s success, he’ll need to let his quarterback do what he does best: throw it downfield.  He’ll need to give OC Scott Linehan the tools to run his system: a strong-armed quarterback, two great wideouts, a three-down feature back, a useful tight end, and a powerful offensive line.

He’ll need to match that run-first, play-action, air it out offense with a stop-the-run-first, smothering defense that prevents points and gets the ball back.  For that, he’s got the right DC, but he’ll need defensive linemen that can contain, linebackers that can blitz, and a secondary that can cover without a lot of linebacker help.

Finally, Schwartz’ll need to be smart.  He’ll need to be flexible.  He’ll need to be aggressive.  He’ll need to be able to think outside the box, make decisions based on real probabilities instead of old coaches’ tales, and balance new-school analysis with a hit-‘em-in-the-mouth mentality.  Fortunately for us, that’s exactly Schwartz approach.

I've played a little chess in my life. If you have a queen sacrifice, and get checkmate three moves later -- in a world championship matchup or whatever -- it's written about in chess manuals and people play the game and they talk about it. It can be the Schwartz Gambit, that it was an incredible move to sacrifice his queen and three plays later to force checkmate . . . Sports writers would write about that match and say, "Yeah, Schwartz won -- but he certainly didn't have to sacrifice his queen."

There's a reason I call the man The Grandmaster.


BigSlim05,  February 9, 2010 at 12:47 PM  

Your blog has quickly climbed to the top of my daily Lions sites. I greatly enjoy your articles, and appreciate reading something more than "the only way Detroit can win is by drafting player X or getting rid of player Y, and anything else is stupid". I choose to share your optimism about the potential building from within the team, and I look forward to the day we can all share our own "Who Dat" moment.

A Lion in ViQueen Territory,  February 9, 2010 at 12:57 PM  

I think Schwartz's approach is the right one - brains over sticking to conventional ideas. Hopefully, he figures us out and gets our D turned around.

Ty,  February 9, 2010 at 2:57 PM  


Thanks! I don't get any satisfaction from ripping apart the team I root for, or from reading others doing the same. To me, if you're going to gripe and kvetch and boo and moan 6.5 days a week, why bother watching on Sunday?


Ty,  February 10, 2010 at 9:31 AM  


Yeah, I really think we got the right guy. I'm excited to see how much progress is made on the defense this offseason . . . a lot of talent needs to be brought in, but I think a whole offseason of immersion in the scheme, consistency of message, and training/conditioning will help.


Weston Corbitt,  February 10, 2010 at 1:55 PM  

Great blog man. I love how Schwartz thought outside the box and learned from Belicheck how to run a team and use their strengths and expose weaknesses. I read countless articles on this guy and how he thought about football. He is obviously bright having a degree in business from Georgetown. I remember just saying, boy if we could hire Schwartz things could turn around. Something just feels different about him. Like Rod would ever open up and do something he didn't "believe" in. His shovel was too sharp. Hopefully we can get some actual talent and let him show how good he can be.

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